I don’t mean to be chauvinistic – but this post is about men in particular. More specifically, how do boys become men? There are many ideas – participate in sports, become an Eagle Scout, join the military, go to college, get a job and get married and have children – these events will make men of boys they say. Perhaps this is so; these adventures do have a place. But I feel we men are obligated to understand the transition to being a man, and particularly the role of the parents. Bear with me for I am writing out of memory – there is no great attempt here to be scholarly – I will offer links to relevant web sites. I would like to introduce three significant sources of studies on mature masculinity. WE will follow with some personal experience and discussion: Joseph Campbell:
- Joseph Campbell was a terrific Jungian Analyst – and that may be selling Campbell short. Campbell studied mythology. Campbell looked for the similarities across cultures. He studied the mythology of Asia, Europe, Africa, the western hemisphere, everything he could possibly identify. Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell wrote of the passage of the child to man. Here is a summary of his findings.
- Others followed Campbell. Another Jungian Analyst, Robert Johnson, wrote on the quest for mature masculinity. Two of his works stand out for this writer – Transformation and He. In Transformation Johnson examines life in three phases: Simple, Complex, and Enlightened. Johnson uses Don Quixote as an example of the simple man, Hamlet as the complex man, and Goeth as the enlightened man. In He Johnson examines the life of King Arthur’s Knight Percival on his quest for the Holy Grail. Johnson uses the quest as an allegory for the quest for modern maturity.
- Rober Bly, the contemporary poet, examined the mythology of Iron John in the context 0f man’s quest for mature masculinity. In a review by Daniel Egger of Yale Law School Egger writes:
Iron John has a thesis: U.S. fathers fail to give their sons what they need to be men. Young men need initiation into adulthood, to be welcomed among the fathers of the world, or they rage and sulk alone through life.
Each of these men make a single very important point: The mother has a role, the father has a role, and the village has a role. Each of these roles is somewhat independent – that is to say there is no one else who can perform the function.
Campbell essentially said that when a boy is born the mother takes care of him. Around age seven the father takes command. At around age fourteen the village assume the responsibility for the final transition. The classic example is of the Native American tribal men taking the boy from the father to go hunting – the boy leaves and the man returns.
Robert Johnson would say that the boy has to remove the shirt knitted by the mother in order to make the final transition.
Robert Bly interprets Iron John to suggest that the boy must remove the key to life from under his mother’s pillow. The boy has to “let the wild man out.” The mother’s pillow is where she lays her head and dreams her dreams of her son’s future. In order for the boy to become a man he must take charge of his own dream – whether that fits his mother or not.
In the modern world the tribal elders do not come to the tent and take the boy on the hunt. As mentioned in the first paragraph, the modern hunt might be in the form of sports, Scouting, the military, college, or employment. In each of these adventures the boy finds himself in the presence of at least one adult male other than his father. These men become the final role models, completing the final transition to being a mature man. Without this progressive nurturing boys lose their focus – they “rage or sulk alone through life.”
We see this in juvenile delinquency. Adolescents join street gangs – and the gang becomes the final role model. Ultimately the boy must take command of his life. What happens when the boy’s father is the scout leader or basketball coach? What about the boy who works in his father’s business? What about the boy who does not leave his mother’s side to participate in male adult adventures? In our world we see these folks regularly – we don’t know what is wrong – we only know that there is something fundamentally dysfunctional about the man.
There is no need for alarm. It is a rare man who does not eventually venture out into the village. Some take longer than others. I think it is important that this transition to the role model of the village occur sometime in adolescence – preferably before the boy turns twenty-one years old.
Sociologist Morris Massey:
Sociologist Morris Massy identified three phases of values development – essentially stating that by age twenty-one a person’s values are taking a firm definition. To change a set value after age twenty-one usually requires a significant emotional event that causes one to examine the depths of his value system. The example I like to use is the homophobic adult male who is confronted in middle age by his gay son. We are talking about a significant emotional event. The father can either reassess his values and accept his son, or he can remain firm in his values and be separated from his son.
The point is that changing predetermined life values after becoming an adult is very difficult. Parent should be very aware that they cannot alone raise their child into mature adulthood. We should understand our role and complete our duties – and look for opportunities for the child to experience the other necessary adventures of this wonderful life. It is the only way a young man will ever see trees of green:
Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World:
Joseph Campbell on becoming and adult: